On Thursday, May 15, thirty-five organizations -- including the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), American Booksellers Association, American Library Association (ALA), Barnes & Noble Booksellers, and Borders Group Inc. -- issued a statement supporting the Freedom to Read Protection Act (H.R. 1157). The bill, which was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on March 6 by Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT), would remove a threat created by the USA Patriot Act to the privacy of bookstore and library records.
"The book community is united in believing that Section 215 of the Patriot Act threatens First Amendment freedom by making people afraid that their purchase and borrowing records may be monitored by the government," said ABFFE President Chris Finan.
"Protecting the confidentiality of one's use of the library is of primary concern to librarians," said Judith F. Krug, executive director of ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom. "Rep. Sanders' bill would restore this core value of librarianship."
Currently, under the Patriot Act, the FBI has vastly expanded authority to search business records, including the records of bookstores and libraries. The FBI may request the records secretly, and it is not required to prove that there is "probable cause" to believe that the person whose records are being sought has committed a crime. In addition, the bookseller or librarian who receives an order is prohibited from revealing it to anyone except those whose help is needed to produce the records.
In their statement, the groups note: "Our society places the highest value on the ability to speak freely on any subject. But freedom of speech depends on the freedom to explore ideas privately. Bookstore customers and library patrons must feel free to seek out books on health, religion, politics, the law, or any subject they choose, without fear that the government is looking over their shoulder
. FBI agents do not need to prove they have 'probable cause' before searching bookstore or library records: they can get access to the records of anyone whom they believe to have information that may be relevant to a terrorism investigation, including people who are not suspected of committing a crime or suspected of having any knowledge of a crime
The statement continues, "We applaud Congressman Sanders and the Democratic and Republican sponsors and co-sponsors of HR 1157. They have shown great courage by defending civil liberties during a time of crisis." (To read the statement in full and for a full list of the statement's signatories, click here.)
If H.R. 1157 is enacted, law enforcement officials will still be able to subpoena bookstore and library records crucial to an investigation, but the courts will exercise their normal scrutiny in reviewing these requests. H.R. 1157 is co-sponsored by 95 members of the House, including eight Republicans. (For the list of co-sponsors, click here.) -- David Grogan